Are we being too hard on silos?

I regularly hear clients describing their workplace as being siloed. It’s common in public, private and third sector.

Sometimes people mean that their organisation is structured in silos.  Sometimes they mean that their information is managed in silos.  Sometimes they mean both.

Picture from amylynn1212

As KM professionals, we can be a bit militant in our language when it comes to silos.

They have become our public enemy number one – we need to demolish silos, tear silos down, break silos up, eradicate silo working…  you get the picture!

A wise leader once challenged me with a simple question.  I was being evangelical about knowledge management, sharing and networking and painting a picture of how the company could be different if it was restructured with knowledge in mind. His thoughtful response was:

“That sounds really good Chris, but can you also tell me what we would lose?”

It’s easy to slip in to a mindset whereby we view our organisations as completely dysfunctional, and “only radical KM surgery can save them”. Of course that’s never true – and raises the dangerous prospect that in our quest to find knowledge-enabled improvement, we fail to recognise what’s good and working well, and how our actions can impact that.

So is the presence of silos always a bad thing?  They seem to work well for managing grain!
Are there areas in your organisation where you need to collect, protect, store, securely develop, and preserve things of value for future use by others?

Perhaps it’s not the presence of silos which is the real issue, it’s their invisibility, anonymity and unnecessary impenetrability!
The problems arise when people don’t know where the silos are, whether they are empty or full, how to access the content and who is working on them.  In which case, there will be times when smashing them down isn’t the solution.  It will be more appropriate to discover and  recognise them, map their existence, understand their contribution, check that there’s no duplication, open them up for access and/or contribution by others (inside and outside?) and finally  to communicate how others can get the benefits.

Here’s a quote from the Organisational Learning Strategy at TEAR Fund, who I had the pleasure of working with earlier this year.

We have a great deal to learn from each other across teams and groups, and so we need to reframe the idea of breaking down our silos, to one of opening them up.  We should be continually finding ways to build bridges between and within our teams and groups.  Silos are used to store grain, and our groups and teams need to nurture their learning, and then communicate it with others.

I think there’s much more than a grain of truth in that.